‘Crunch time’—it’s been dominating the headlines recently, but this is by no means a new problem. To anyone old enough to remember, the infamous ‘EA Spouse’ blog post first brought crunch to mainstream attention with shocking accounts of mandatory 90-hour work weeks, without even paying overtime. Last October, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser made the interesting decision to beam with pride over the “100-hour work weeks” put into finishing Red Dead Redemption 2.
Despite the toll overworking has on a person’s physical health, mental health, and social relationships, more and more workers are finding themselves spending seven days a week in the office to get a project finished. Author of the EA Spouse blog, game developer Erin Hoffman, says in her article that crunch is avoidable, so why do we hear so much about it?
From Fortnite to Anthem, here’s what games workers have been crunching on for the past 12 months.
September 2018: Telltale Games
Fittingly, Telltale kicks off our list again. Last time we spoke about how employees of this industry darling got to work one day, only to be told they had 30 minutes to clear their desks. With workers not receiving any warning about how fragile their job security was until it was too late, it was hardly surprising when ex-employees revealed that they were in a constant state of crunch with unpaid overtime being the norm.
On September 23, just two days after Telltale announced its closure, former narrative designer Emily Grace Buck took to Twitter to reveal what it what like to work in the “pressure cooker” of a game studio.
Dear everyone asking,
Yes, it’s true we usually worked 50+ hr weeks. Sometimes 70-80. Weekends were often expected. We were constantly “understaffed”. Deadlines were ludicrously tight. Our schedules were so close we went from one crunch directly into another.
— Emily Grace Buck (@emilybuckshot) September 23, 2018
Emily, who worked on Telltale hits such as The Walking Dead: Michonne and Batman: The Enemy Within, went on to reveal, “I can’t tell you how many times I personally worked multiple nights in a row with barely any sleep to hit a milestone… Then I’d do it again. We all would.”
Emily wasn’t the only one to speak out. Former character artist at Telltale, Brandon Cebenka, also tweeted about his experience working for the company.
Re: I got laid off at Telltale
None of my sleepless nights or long hours on weekends trying to ship a game on time got me severance today. Don’t work overtime unless you’re paid for it, y’all. Protect your health. Companies don’t care about you.
— Brandon Cebenka (@Binkysaur) September 21, 2018
As shocking as the studio closure was, these accounts of unpaid overtime were nothing new. As recently as March last year, six months before the shutdown, The Verge spoke to multiple anonymous sources from the struggling Telltale revealing that, “some former employees reported working 14- to 18-hour days or coming in every day of the week for weeks on end.”
Furthermore, due to the episodic structure, the crunch period was described as “constant,” rather than simply at the end of the project.
October 2018: Rockstar Games
This one starts with an own goal on Rockstar’s part. Basking in the hype for the highly anticipated Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser spoke to Vulture and mentioned that the workers were putting in “100-hour weeks” to get the game finished. Not the best look for a company during an outcry against workers’ rights abuses in the gaming industry. To make matters worse, an ex-employee of Rockstar, Job Stauffer, didn’t hold back in response to the article.
It's been nearly a decade since I parted from Rockstar, but I can assure you that during the GTA IV era, it was like working with a gun to your head 7 days a week. "Be here Saturday & Sunday too, just in case Sam or Dan come in, they want to see everyone working as hard as them." https://t.co/TaQS5LnaAa
— Job J Stauffer (@jobjstauffer) October 16, 2018
Houser brothers, Dan and Sam, were quick to clarify their positions. In a statement to Kotaku, they elaborated that the 100-hour working week only applied to the writing team, consisting of four people including Dan himself, and anyone else who chooses to put in the “additional effort.”
Furthermore, management lifted the social media ban which forbade workers from discussing their time at Rockstar. Many came forward about praises for the company, backing up Houser’s amended statement, such as senior content developer Phil Beveridge, who said, “I have never worked a 100-hour week. Nobody should work a 100-hour week… [I never] felt that not doing overtime would in some way impact my career.”
However, some anonymous sources painted a different picture. “There was this culture of, if you don’t put in the hours, you’re not worth working here,” said one ex-employee. “We absolutely were forced to work six-day weeks,” said another. “It was a lot of getting into the office at 9 or 10 a.m. and leaving at 10 or 11 at night.”
So what’s the takeaway from this? With statements from both sides of the argument, it’s best to take a look at the sources yourself—however, with other controversies in the background, including recent allegations that the company intimidated an employee into not come forward with an alleged sexual assault, it isn’t crazy to believe that current employees are too scared to speak out. Most of the praise came from those still on the company’s payroll, and the allegations against them come from those who have moved on to other studios, so make of that what you will.
April 2019: Epic Games
Now the other cases we’ve discussed might be bad, but at least there an end in sight, yet at Epic Games, it’s endless. Fortnite Battle Royale took the world by storm summer 2017, and after just two years it’s entering its 10th season. This “live service” model receives constant updates post-launch to add new weapons, events, and patching bugs. This model has kept the insanely popular battle royale title profitable, but at what cost?
In an explosive Polygon report, anonymous employees revealed that they had worked “months” of 70- to 100-hour weeks to no end. “The company gives us unlimited time off, but it’s almost impossible to take the time,” said one employee, explaining that the workload is so demanding, that it requires everybody to put in overtime. “I hardly sleep. I’m grumpy at home. I have no energy to go out. Getting a weekend away from work is a major achievement. If I take a Saturday off, I feel guilty,” revealed another.
So why is this happening to the staff of Epic Games? It’s all to stay relevant. “The biggest problem is that we’re patching all the time. The executives are focused on keeping Fortnite popular for as long as possible, especially with all the new competition that’s coming in,” alluding to challengers such Apex Legends and PUBG—meaning Fortnite has to fight for its slice of the pie.
In response, Epic Games has made a point of closing the office for a, *ahem*, fortnight this summer. However, they also argue that the cases of “100-hour weeks” are “incredibly rare,” and management will “immediately remedy them to avoid recurrence.” While none of the workers who counted this were willing to put their names to their complaints, this statement from the company is a world away from the people ‘breaking down in tears,'” as said by anonymous sources in the Polygon piece.
April 2019: NetherRealm Studios
April sure did not have many slow news days. In response to the Epic Games scandal, a software engineer at NetherRealm dropped a bombshell of a Twitter thread. In it, he said, “working at NetherRealm on [Mortal Kombat 9] nearly killed me.”
James Longstreet, who worked at the Mortal Kombat developer for eight years when they were still Midway Games, continued his criticism.
“I didn’t sleep more than 4 hours for months. From January to April 2011 I was at work more than half of the time.” To make matters worse, he claimed that MK9 was always on target, yet crunch was scheduled regardless.
on MK9 crunch officially began after new years day 2011. of course, we did a bit of pre-crunch before that, just to make sure we were in a good spot for crunch. this was on schedule documents. this was not a wink-wink-nudge-nudge "passionate hardworking" thing, this was mandate.
— Jiminy Snackmouth (@jlongstreet) April 23, 2019
Others quickly backed up these claims. Similarly, QA tester Isaac Torres, when speaking to PC Gamer, revealed that some people were so overworked from 100-hour weeks, they “stayed on the couch in the office to not risk falling asleep while driving.” A further nine sources spoke to GameIndustry.biz, one of which claimed the most hours they had worked in one week was 115. Another said they worked 12-hour shifts every day for six months straight to finish Mortal Kombat X.
In response, NetherRealm Studios denied any wrongdoing, but claimed it would “actively look into all allegations, as we take these matters very seriously.” It was also reported that the company gave employees the weekend off after the news broke, and has begun consulting staff on how to improve.
April 2019: BioWare
The final story in the domino effect of April scandals is one of mismanagement, tears, and mental breakdowns. According to a Kotaku investigation made up of testimonies from 19 BioWare employees, that is no exaggeration. Making Anthem broke people.
“Depression and anxiety are an epidemic within BioWare,” said one member of staff to Kotaku. “I actually cannot count the amount of ‘stress casualties’ we had on Mass Effect: Andromeda or Anthem,” said another. According to the report, ‘stress casualty’ refers to when a BioWare employee has a mental breakdown so severe they simply disappear for months at a time if they return at all.
So what causes all this? It’s “BioWare magic.” You’d be forgiven for thinking this refers to the company’s ability to produce brilliant RPGs, but it’s actually a belief in the studio that no matter how messy the development for a game gets, it will all turn out okay if the workers put extra hours in. Andromeda and Anthem proved this wrong. The Mass Effect sequel went down so poorly that its DLC and updates were canceled, and Anthem gifted the studio its worst Metacritic score to date.
Just taking a glance at the Glassdoor reviews for the company, the crunch comes up in many ways. “Every project I’ve worked on has resulted in 80 – 100 hour weeks for at least 6 months,” says one review. “Regular overtime is necessary to meet project commitments,” says another one. With its reliance on crunch not working, and big names in BioWare dropping like flies, the future for this much-loved development studio is worrying, to say the least. BioWare dismissed the Kotaku investigation as “tearing down” individuals in management, saying that articles like this do nothing to “make our industry and craft better.” They did, however, say they “hear the criticisms,” and will begin internal surveys to improve the workplace culture.
June 2019: Treyarch
In Jason Schreier’s latest investigation, QA testers at Activision subsidiary Treyarch spoke mostly of their poor working conditions, making them feel like “second class citizens.” They also touch on the long hours they put in and the small slice of the pie they get in return.
According to the report, during the development of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, the QA department was pulling 70-hour weeks for $13.25 an hour, the minimum wage in Santa Monica at the time of production. To add salt to the wound, cast your mind back to the extravagant $15 million bonus Activision gave to their new CFO for signing on. Even after the astounding success of Black Ops 2, these contractors received no reward for their crunch.
The development side suffered too, having just nine months to create the game’s Blackout mode. The crunch was not “mandatory,” but to reach to October deadline, management had set it. To Treyarch’s credit, there was overtime pay for anyone working more than eight hours in one day, not much in the way for the “panic attacks” and “disassociation.” One source even spoke about a “drinking-to-cope” culture that permeates among the employees.
Parent company Activision responded in the Kotaku article but made no attempt to address the allegations. They said that It’s important that “everyone working on the game… is treated with respect and that their contributions are appreciated.” Additionally, the company “constantly strives to provide a rewarding and fun development environment.”